By Patricia Lee Sharpe
That is Fullness
This is Fullness
From Fullness comes Fullness
Take Fullness from Fullness
What remains is Fullness
Om Shantih Shantih Shantih
The Paramahamsa Upanisad
This has been hard to write, not only because I am sad, but because sloppy thinking and writing won’t do for P. Lal.
I planned to visit him, in Kolkata, this coming January or February. For months I’ve been looking forward to another session of wide-ranging, exhilarating conversation, some heavy literary and philosophical stuff, perhaps, but also the elation of minds meeting in surprising ways, all to be heightened (I hoped) by cups of Darjeeling and squares of cloud-light shondesh from the kitchen of Shyamasree, his wife, whose family had been intimately connected with the Shanti Niketan of Rabindranath Tagore.
That wordfest won’t happen now. P. Lal died on November 3, 2010.
Purushottama Lal (aka Profsky) was, oddly enough, the only mentor this American writer ever had. He hounded me relentlessly until I let him publish my first collection of poetry. The Deadmen and Other Poems appeared in 2002 with the Writers Workshop imprint, gold-embossed, handloom-bound, in a rainbow of colors. Three books have followed that one. Would any of my poetry gone public without P. Lal’s hectoring? I don’t know. But this is the way publishing began for me, and I am grateful.
We met face to face, a qualification whose importance will emerge shortly, while I was Branch Public Affairs Officer at the American Consulate in Calcutta/Kolkata in 1998. He had committed himself to translating (or transcreating, as he immodestly put it) the Mahabharata of Vyasa and, tranche by tranche, he was reading his beautifully—indeed lovingly Englished lines to a small collection of enthusiasts who gathered at 11:00 am on Sunday mornings. Having taken a graduate course in Sanskrit literature at the University of Chicago, I’d nibbled at some tone-deaf Victorian and 20th century translations, so I was eager to know if a readable version might finally be in the works. Off I went, one Sunday, and established myself, as discreetly as I could for the only non-Indian in the room, as far toward the rear as empty seats permitted.
Thus I found a refuge from the pain that went along with the State Department’s gleeful absorption of the U.S. Information Agency. U.S.I.A.’s Indian employees were being squeezed mercilessly. Collegial operations were being replaced by rigid hierarchies. Rapid response was giving way to bureaucratic sclerosis. My efforts to influence the process were fruitless. But Profsky knew nothing of this. I left it all behind on Sunday mornings.
Some of us—never more than 40 or 50—were devotees who approached the text with reverence. Others were sophisticates to whom the Indian epics mattered only as literature or cultural history. I was the brash American with provocative interventions left over from her graduate school encounter with the epic. No matter. When the reading was done, all queries and comments were welcome—by P. Lal and everyone else. Generous intellectual courtesy would turn out to be one of the deep pleasures of those mornings, and P. Lal himself was nothing if not cosmopolitan. He began every session with an epigraph from the Tao Te Ching.
I introduced myself to P. Lal that first Sunday and asked, “Do you mind my style? Shall I continue to speak up or should I restrain myself?"
“Continue,” he smiled.
In time Profsky invited me to tea. I, of course, reciprocated, inviting him and Shayamasree to a simple quiet dinner of the sort one shares with friends. And so it went, until I became Patricia Devi. This is a traditional mode of address in Bengal, but I love it. Devi means goddess, after all. And then, in the mail one day, arrived a slender volume with that distinctive handloom binding, this time in forest green. It turned out to be a P. Lal transcreation of the Isa Upanisad, and my name was on the dedication page. Shayamasree, other relatives and other friends were similarly honored, their names forever associated with the ancient texts he made so eloquently accessible to our age. How strange and wonderful is life!
Exiting the American Consulate in Calcutta for the last time was sheer joy. Leaving Calcutta wasn’t. I didn’t get back for about five years. Naturally I went to see Profsky and Shayamasree. After he and I had retreated to the library, I discovered, once again, that P. Lal’s memory was far better than mine. He was always able to recite long passages of poetry by English and American poets by heart, while I, a Ph.D. in American literature, had to read my favorite lines from the page. Very embarrassing. But worse embarrassment was imminent. That afternoon P. Lal dredged out of the depths of my forgetfulness the fact that we had had a much earlier encounter, of sorts.
After my first trip to India, long before I joined the Foreign Service, I’d translated into English some short stories of Hindi writer Nirmal Verma. They’d been published in a now defunct Journal of South Asian literature. The Verma translations had inspired the journal’s editor to ask me to review a recently published collection of modern Indian poetry in English. Indian writing in English wasn’t the world-respected phenomenon it later became, and I, a typically arrogant, recent Ph.D., had been superciliously unenthusiastic.
“Do you remember that book?” P. Lal asked.
I fumbled for words I didn't need. My face must have been as red as the ruby bindings of some Writers Workshop volumes.
But Profsky was smiling—the word that comes to mind is fondly, as good friends do when they can’t resist doling out a little well-deserved teasing.
“You’ve known—all this time?”
My name had rung a bell as soon as I had introduced myself, it seems. Actions, supposedly, have fruits: hurt brings hurt. I’d dissed a book he'd edited. Yet he’d insisted on publishing my poems. Was awe the right response? Or simple relief?
So P. Lal had his impish and playful impulses, which also included a good measure of self-mockery. He was particularly inclined to make fun of his given name. Purusottama. Its length. Its tongue-twisting quality. Purusottama. But he also liked it, I think, this name derived from purush, the Sanskrit word for the primal man. And since Purusottama Lal had a visceral as well as intellectual love of words, modern as well as ancient, I have a hunch that he’d be delighted with a tribute stolen from the street talk of today's America.
Profsky—he da man.
For a more complete, formal obituary read this.